The Power of Em Dashes
I emulate them — maybe we all should
Most students exalt the period, exclamation point, and question mark. Many respect the colon and semicolon. But students — like my high school literary magazine contributors — often neglected the em dash. Such students recognized the em dash when they read, but didn’t use it themselves - or if they tried to, they incorrectly used a hyphen instead. Even MIT students are susceptible to this mistake.
This confusion arises because em dashes don’t trumpet their presence and hog the spotlight — they generously share it. They’re indispensable leaders that sacrifice for the greater good. Thus, I didn’t just use em dashes — I emulated them as I led my high school literary magazine.
Some of our writers were like a pair of parentheses, encompassing important ideas that others often glaze over. The scientist-turned-poet was initially shy, but with encouragement, she applied her analytical mindset to produce vivid, rhythmic imagery. Like an em dash, I tried to emphasize her ideas — which were already exquisite — and helped them get the attention it deserved.
Other writers were like a set of commas — a crucial, yet often underestimated structural component. The dystopian poets feared judgment for their style and nontraditional stanza structure. However, by publishing such experimental works in various editions of our magazine, we delineated a space for their artistry — as an em dash should. Their poems commanded respect and helped our magazine appeal to a larger audience.
Even though both of these writers used their experience to help others, my work isn’t over — there’s plenty of punctuation left to empower. I’m at MIT now, but the magazine is led by other em dashes — ones that have learned from my mistakes. I’m content knowing that they’re refining the magazine’s sentence so that it remains central to my high school’s paragraph and local community’s essay. On the other hand, I don’t want to be complacent: this em-dash-wannabe is just getting started.
As a start, I still write — through Infinite Magazine, 21W.759 (Writing Science Fiction), and this column, evidently — but that’s just the start. I still sometimes accidentally fragment sentences, isolating ideas instead of unifying them. Other times, I enable run-ons and generate a cacophony of voices that destructively interfere with each other. I don’t mind, though — such grammatical mishaps prepare this em dash for the ventures and adventures of my MIT chapter.
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